best of 2015: honorable mentions

casio vsco 1the list of our hands-down favorite albums of 2015 will drop tomorrow.  to sate your appetite for the time being, digest the work of the following five artists; each offered up a project that informed the tone of music this year, continued to shape their own artistic personae, or contributed heavily to social commentary.  a few hit all three categories.  links to stream are imbedded in each title; dig in below.

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black messiahd’angelo & the vanguard – black messiah

without black messiah, kendrick lamar’s to pimp a butterfly would exist in a very different capacity, or perhaps not at all.  d’angelo’s first album in fourteen years so profoundly affected producer terrace martin at the tail-end of 2014 that he immediately began to retouch and rework tracks on lamar’s impending release to integrate its sound into a very similar contemporary social commentary.  black messiah exists in much of the same vein as sly & the family stone’s 1971 classic there’s a riot goin’ on and innervisions-era stevie wonder, with near-flawless levels of funk arrangements and intra-ensemble musicianship (questlove and pino palladino contributed heavily; d’angelo’s near-virtuosic vocal abilities and synth construction are incredible in their own right) compounded by a mixture of romantic odysseys and searing examinations of race relations.  indeed, d’angelo bumped up the release date of the album he had so painstakingly labored over in direct response to the death of eric garner, the decision in ferguson not to indict darren wilson in the death of michael brown, and the protests that surrounded these events.  the urgency of black messiah only became more pertinent, as 2015 ticked off killing after killing of unarmed black citizens at the hands of law enforcement; in forty years, the album will undoubtedly be one of the more salient cultural snapshots of the persisting racism in early twenty-first century america.

ds2 futurefuture – ds2

after a lackluster outing in 2014, you’d be slightly forgiven for assuming that nayvadius wilburn would post a similar performance this year.  but only slightly.  the artist better known as future instead turned in a critically-lauded résumé of two solo mixtapes (with a third purportedly on its way before the year’s end), a high-profile collaboration with drake, and his third studio album, ds2.  future relies heavily on atlanta mainstays metro boomin and zaytoven to craft the dystopian harmonies that accompany his codeine-laced trap hymns on ds2 as he weaves through chest-thumping accounts of bravado (“i serve the base”) and drug-fueled debauchery (“freak hoes”) to balance out the perpetual bleakness of his persona.  future could have hung his head and feebly released snippets of material after failing to live up to his expectations last year; instead, ds2 triumphantly caps off a quest for redemption that has reinstated future as a viable frontrunner for trap’s iron throne.  what a time to be alive.

eat pray thug coverheems – eat pray thug

 “i’m so new york / i still don’t bump tupac,” himanshu suri brags at the outset of “so n.y.,” the second track on eat pray thug.  performing as heems while a member of das rascist and now on his own, suri has made a name for himself with brazen, laugh-out-loud statements like this one, but you can usually bet on there being underlying context.  suri embodies a very particular subset of new york identity: coming of age as a brown man in post-9/11 america.  on eat pray thug, suri relies on personal anecdotes to drive home the laundry list of domestic injustices faced by residents of southeast asian and middle eastern descent in the wake of the attacks, from forced assimilation (“flag shopping”) to heartbreaking consequences of racial profiling (“patriot act”).  the album is a long-overdue narrative in hip-hop, one that is – in a cruel twist of events – still incredibly salient in the face of renewed xenophobia incurred by the attacks in san bernardino and paris.

honeymoonlana del rey – honeymoon

lana del rey has absolutely no qualms about burning slowly for an entire hour on her third major-label full-length.  honeymoon arrives on the heels of last summer’s ultraviolence and sinks even deeper into the realm of full-blown noir, a territory elizabeth grant has been meticulously constructing since the birth of her alter ego.  now it’s just flat-out extravagant.  the central thesis of “high by the beach,” a rare, trap-inspired moment of momentum on the album, comes off as the furthest thing from ridiculous precisely due to the effortless elegance del rey has slowly woven into her music; cinematic centerpieces “music to watch boys to” and “salvatore” follow this rationale closely as well.  it speaks volumes to her artistic growth and confidence that lana del rey no longer has the proclivity for the blatantly provocative.  instead, she just buries them in confessionals against a backdrop of polychromatic orchestration.

tame impala currentstame impala – currents

don’t kid yourself that currents bears any semblance of a revolutionary or landmark album; it doesn’t.  but once you put it in its proper place, this year’s model of tame impala does turn into something special.  kevin parker’s psychedelic magnum opus “let it happen” was one of the most immediately impressionable tracks of the year; the opening number on currents trudges resolutely through a succession of lush soundscapes before reaching an extended epiphany, but it’s parker’s ability and willingness to extend his odyssey that makes the album truly worthwhile.  every wandering, slow-burning moment (ie. “yes i’m changing,” “past life”) is balanced out by adroit slices of straight-up pop (ie. “the less i know the better,” “disciples”), adding a crucial third dimension that’s ultimately responsible for binding currents together.

best of 2015: music videos

super 8 vscothe year’s end is upon us yet again, and today begins the rapid succession of accolades doled out to various media.  things will be a little different here at the dimestore this year; in accordance to our removal of ratings at the end of individual album reviews, nothing will be ranked on any our year-end lists.  instead, each candidate will appear in alphabetical order.  if you are truly curious about this site’s absolute favorite album, ep, song, or music video from this year, inquire within.

up first in the schedule are our five favorite music videos of 2015, unintentionally – but perhaps tellingly – skewed towards hip-hop and pop.  read on.

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disclosure – “magnets (ft. lorde)”

though caracal as a whole sailed by as a mere blip on our radar, it was impossible to ignore a strong byproduct of that record: the duo’s collaboration with lorde on “magnets.”  the lawrence brothers may have ceded some of their production grandeur to accommodate lorde’s more minimalist aesthetic, but the track stuck, perhaps the only one that will endure from a shoulder-shrug of a sophomore effort.

the video for “magnets” delves deeper.  on the surface, it’s an eerie, (yet again) lynch-indebted exploration of debauchery and infidelity, though these basic lusts soon prove to be an underlying condition of a much more serious problem.  lorde the artistic persona is also largely absent from the plot, only usurping ella o’connor in the video’s final seconds to play the role of vigilante.

heems – “sometimes”

more on eat pray thug as a cohesive unit in a few days.  the video for the album’s lead single, “sometimes,” plays out like a late-night sketch comedy segment, and appropriately so: two of its main characters are eric andre and hannibal buress.  at the center of it all is himanshu suri himself, holding down the role of a sleazy infomercial salesman peddling a skin-whitening paste.  the narrative is funny enough (heems’ sidekick and test subject wins for best dance moves) and attains peak irony by its end, but “sometimes” more soberly hints at the pressures of assimilation and code-switching discussed at length throughout eat pray thug.

run the jewels & zack de la rocha – “close your eyes (and count to fuck)”

perhaps the year’s most visceral music video was the one accompanying “close your eyes (and count to fuck).”  plucked from the lauded rtj2, the clip for “close your eyes” follows the physical struggle between a young, unarmed black man (keith stanfield) and a white male police officer (shea whigham), one that’s a clear analog to the on-going racial profiling and police brutality that has plagued african-american communities for decades.  both parties are exhausted before the video even begins, and the unresolved tension at its end extends the notion that these encounters are tragic cogs in an irreparable machine.

taylor swift – “bad blood (ft. kendrick lamar)”

the album version of “bad blood” was defined by an anthemic pre-chorus and chorus yet hindered by subpar verses, so why not let kendrick lamar hop on the beat for its radio edit?  very few music videos are ever blockbuster events, but “bad blood” sure felt like one, with a big enough budget for both kill bill theatrics and a high-profile cast featuring nearly every single one of swift’s female contemporaries.  bonus points to director joseph kahn for utilizing the track’s fantastically emo bridge to set up the clip’s explosive climax.

vince staples – “señorita”

a tattooed messiah leads his congregation through the streets of a walled-off neighborhood in the video for “señorita.” one by one, followers are picked off by automated turrets while their leader is spared a similar end, ostensibly due to his faithful repetition of the song’s dystopian hook.  vince staples, meanwhile, circumnavigates this fate through his musical talents, though his dependence on armed security to perform robs him of an autonomy so often dependent on skin color.

staples is a realist, providing blunt commentary on the day-to-day life in his hometown of long beach, california.  whether or not the neighborhood depicted in “señorita” is meant to represent his own, it’s still incredibly unnerving to see the plight of an entire community ultimately distilled into the viewing pleasure of white america.

heems – eat pray thug

heems eat pray thug
out march 10th via greedhead/megaforce records.

post-9/11 america was immediately disorienting; misguided patriotism swelled into expansive military conflict abroad while xenophobia at home acquired a strong new dimension.  that composite sketch is the rough outline of eat pray thug, the debut solo effort from ex-das racist member heems.

heems, the performance persona of himanshu suri, skirts around issues of race for much of the album’s opening third.  strong references to heems’ brownness surface immediately on “sometimes,” but he takes his time to fully contextualize them and elaborate.  early tracks like “so ny” pay homage to suri’s native queens (“i’m so new york i still don’t bump tupac” is the hands-down funniest declaration on eat pray thug), while “damn, girl” tackles the secondary love component that heems tacked on to the album.

it isn’t until “flag shopping” hits that heems becomes overtly political, with visceral couplets like “we’re going flag shopping for american flags / they’re staring at our turbans, they’re calling them rags” and the less-direct but even more powerful “they want a shorter version, they want a nickname / that wanna toby us like we kunta kinte.”  the song touches on conformity and assimilation issues, but is especially poignant when confronting a prevailing cultural ignorance that has grouped muslims with sikhs and hindus into a super-minority whose persecution is incessant and unwarranted.

eat pray thug has its missteps, most of which are byproducts of the non-sequiturs and satirical nature that pervaded das racist material during that group’s tenure.  tracks like “pop song (games)” and the aforementioned “damn, girl” feel more like well-intentioned fillers, earnest attempts from heems to offer up a multi-faceted body of work, but his most powerful material surrounds a topic grossly underrepresented in hip-hop and cultural commentary in general; perhaps he might have done well to condense eat pray thug into a more succinct product.

case in point: “al q8a,” “suicide by cop,” and “patriot act” comprise the defining triptych of the album.  “al q8a” and “suicide by cop” both hinge largely on heems’ established affinity for deft wordplay, strong narrative, and searing sarcasm, but “patriot act” literally spells out major instances of racial profiling experienced by suri, his family, and his friends over and over until the injustices and shortcomings are permanently branded in the audience’s collective conscience.  it’s here that the lines finally blur between himanshu suri the person and heems the performer; it’s here that eat pray thug realizes its full potential.

7.8/10